In the Form of a Question.

3D Character and Question Mark“Will you send me the documents today.”

The period confused me. That was supposed to be a question mark, right? When I asked a friend who teaches a business writing course, they told me it annoyed them too… but was technically correct.

“It’s called a polite command,” they said. “It’s a command, so there’s a period, but it’s supposed to soften the language.”

I thought about it for a second, then realized that I deal with the same thing on a regular basis. One of my supervisors has a habit of saying “Would you care to take on this extra work?”

“No, not really,” I say.

I can see the annoyance on their face. “Well, do it anyway,” my supervisor says.

“Wait, I thought you were asking me,” I reply. “I’ll do the work – but I don’t really want to.”

“I was just being polite about it,” my supervisor says.

The thing is, this so-called polite command is not polite. Fundamentally, it’s simply obscuring the power relationships between people. If you can only answer in one way, it’s not a request – it’s simply a command, no matter how much you try to phrase it in the form of a question. [insert Jeopardy theme music here.] It’s something that parenting manuals teach you as well.

Saying “Do you want to clean your room now?” to a child when you are actually telling them they must clean their room is setting the child and you up for conflict. If the child does not want to clean their room, they will be honest and not do it. The child then gets upset when you are angry that they did not clean thier room – because you asked them. If the child cannot truly choose to say “no”, then do not offer it as a question.

It’s a pretty simple guideline – and one that’s amazingly effective. It still lets you be polite as well. You don’t have to be rude when giving a command. We already have something to soften a command. You just have to use the magic word.

“Please do this extra work.”
“Please send me the documents today.”
“Please clean your room.”

I am well aware that “please” began as “If it please you” or somesuch – rather akin to “Do you mind…” or “Will you…” However, in our current usage, “please” alone does not turn a sentence into a question. So maybe this is all entymological shift… but as a social scientist, I have to wonder why the shift is happening now. Why do we feel the need to make our questions into commands? And what does that say about our way of life today?

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